What Would You Have Done? The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Translator: Carol Brown Janeway
Publihser: Vintage International
Genre: Literature Novel
ISBN: 978-0-679-44279-0

In a talk organized by BBC, a young reader asked Bernhard Schlink that, under the same circumstance of Hanna, what would he have done? Of course Schlink’s answer was he did not know. No one would have an answer for it. Remember the plot was created by Schlink, and his goal of this novel was to look into the dilemma without solution.

The Reader is a very straightforward and analytic novel. Given the author is a lawyer, there shall not be anything ambiguous. Although quite a few reviews contend that Hanna’s illiteracy implies the willful ignorance of the multitude about the cruelty of Nazi regime, Schlink does not think it is a metaphor. In The Reader he gave reasons why Hanna never tried to learn reading and writing over the years before her sentence and imprisonment: For a person never admits her/his flaw would feel extremely difficult to take any action to correct it. But let us read this novel from another angle: since Hanna’s crime has nothing to do with her illiteracy,  her inability suggests the mistake made in the past that by no means can be remedied. The shame comes from the acknowledgement of being unable to fix it, so the haunting past exists in the present.

In the beginning, Michael felt hard to leave Hanna, then they became lovers. The relationship of lovers means one possesses the other, and is possessed by the other.

"For a long time I had abandoned myself to her and her power of possession. Then I had also learned to possess her."

And throughout their relationship, Hanna never felt having a sexual relationship with an under aged boy was a problem. But even Michael was so infatuated by Hanna, he couldn’t tell anyone about her. Eventually, Hanna became a part of Michael’s personal history, that he also needed to find excuse not to reveal. Nevertheless, Michael never could get rid of the feeling that his denial of Hanna was his betrayal. During the trial when Hanna’s attorney attempted to get her probation, Michael was edgy. He admitted that “I wanted her far away from me, so unattainable that she could continue as the mere memory she had become and remained all these years.” The trial gradually clarified issues regarding what was the unspeakable mistake made in the past, and what damages it caused, and how it was still entangled with the present.

In addition to the cruelty conducted decades ago,  as time passes, the shame we all share mainly comes from the numbness to what had happened. It began with the numbness of both of the guards and prisoners in the concentration camps as they gradually lost hope for survival. Nevertheless, they still saw the hopefulness and agonies on the faces of those just sent in. Then it was the numbness of people participating in the trials. At first they were stunned by what they heard, then after the stories were repeated again and again in the courts, the judges and the students in the hearing were no longer surprised by what had been done by those defendants. Then one realizes that the trials never really brought issues of conscience of all, but simply the best strategies for legal defense. The numbness is the reason why the mistake made in the past found no remedies. And Hanna, obsessed with cleanness and order, was the only one insisted on what she remembered as truths until she had to falsely admit she wrote the report that further criminalized her. “She was struggling, as she always had struggled, not to show what she could do, but to hide what she couldn’t do.” Again, it was not the horrifying conducts of the past shaming people like Michael, the second generation as he called himself and his peers, but knowing that the past mistake would not to be corrected.

Another critical issue is the entanglement of the past and the present. To Michael and his peers, the obscured past was their present. They were informed about the past through askew channels:

"Today there are so many books and films that the world of the camps is a part of our collective imagination… Allied photographs and the testimony of survivors flashed on the mind again and again, until they froze into clichés."  

Michael had to paid a visit to a concentration camp to imagine the circumstances of Hanna’s work. “I wanted to simultaneously understand Hanna’s crime and condemn it.” But he found it was impossible to understand and condemn a person at the same time.

The student movement in 1968 was for the second generation to openly raise their doubts of their parents. Young people questioned why they were asked to fulfill the expectation of the whole generation of people who either had committed Nazi crimes, or watched them happen, or looked away while they were happening. Nevertheless, Michael also realized that pointing at the guilty party did not free them from shame.

Reading is the author’s successful tactic to rationalize the narrative structure, but as he said in the BBC interview, education doesn’t mean morality. Reading did not change Hanna or Michael, they remained the persons they always had been.

At last, Hanna hanged herself right before she was released. Why would she take her own life after doing her time and learning how to read and write? Because Hanna’s imprisonment did not correct anything. The punishment she got did not make her a more moral person, and the mistake she, you and me, we all had made remains uncured.  Our greatest shame is not what had been done, but why, even after paying such tremendous price, it still is not redressed. The clemency and freedom Hanna was given was totally pointless and meaningless, so how could she walk free?

The Reader tries to include as many issues as possible, by not answering the frequently asked questions, but making clear why they can’t be answered. What would Bernhard Schlink have done? He wrote a successful novel, didn't he?

Note: BBC World Service- World Book Club https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00cp7t1

Submitted: March 07, 2019

© Copyright 2022 C.J. Anderson-Wu. All rights reserved.

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